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Been reading, Q4 2016

(c) Uno Due Tre Fuoco #3 (2012) by Ekaterina Panikanova

This page is related to that page. You're reading something constructed using a rhetorical practice, something informed both directly and indirectly by the entire history of composition up until this point, from the Sophists to Derrida. But you're navigating it using pure logical statements, using spans of text or images that, when clicked or selected, get other files and display them on your screen. The text is based in the rhetorical tradition; the links are based in the logical tradition; and somewhere in there is something worth figuring out.

...the entire history of Western pedagogy [is] an oscillation between these two traditions, between the tradition of rhetoric as a means for obtaining power — language as just a collection of interconnected signifiers co-relating, without a grounding in "truth," and the tradition of seeking truth, of searching for a fundamental, logical underpinning for the universe, using ideas like the platonic solids or Boolean logic, or tools like expert systems and particle accelerators ... what is the relationship between narratives and logic? What is
sprezzatura for the web? Hell if I know. My way of figuring it all out is to build the system and write inside it, because I'm too dense to work out theories.
Paul Ford

When the data-driven approach... did not lead to immediate success — and occasionally even when it did — it was open to attack in a way that the old approach to decision-making was not ...whatever it is in the human psyche — this hunger for an expert who knows things with certainty, even when certainty is not possible — has a talent for hanging around. It’s like a movie monster that’s meant to have been killed but is somehow always alive for the final act.
– Michael Lewis

As well as my usual durability scores, in this quarter I added in how each book is trying to affect you, using Julia Galef's types of books. Her model is that a book can offer you: new Data, Theories to explain data, arguments for Values, or entire Thinking styles. She also assigns a number 1-5, roughly "Concreteness -> Generality". I should like Data books better than I apparently do.

1/5: Do not read.     4/5: Read with care.
2/5: Do not finish.     4*/5: Read agape.
3/5: Read cursorily.     5/5: Read again
3*/5: Mind-candy.    


  • So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson.

    Investigation of what angry people are doing to jokers and liars and fools, generally on the internet, generally on political grounds. We are sending them death threats, we are photoshopping them onto animal porn, we are doxxing them, we are getting them fired. If Ronson's shock and remorse could spread, the most distinctive depressing part of modern life would evaporate.

    There is only one representative of the online shamers here (besides Ronson, who is reformed). You realise quickly that she is not especially hateful: she's just dim – she still thinks shaming is great, even after suffering it horribly and losing her job as a result of her own aggressive humourlessness and insensitivity. In her interview with Ronson, she shows no signs of empathy or learning. It is a tragic example of how addling identity can be.

    Contains one essential passage, the payload inamongst Ronson's ordinariness and self-deprecation: a human-rights lawyer pointing out the emotional power of noncriminal acts:
    “Let me ask you three questions,” he said. “And then you’ll see it my way. Question One: What’s the worst thing that you have ever done to someone? It’s okay. You don’t have to confess it out loud. Question Two: What’s the worst criminal act that has ever been committed against you? Question Three: Which of the two was the most damaging for the victim?”

    The worst criminal act that has ever been committed against me was burglary. How damaging was it? Hardly damaging at all. I felt theoretically violated at the idea of a stranger wandering through my house. But I got the insurance money. I was mugged one time. I was eighteen. The man who mugged me was an alcoholic. He saw me coming out of a supermarket. “Give me your alcohol,” he yelled. He punched me in the face, grabbed my groceries, and ran away. There wasn’t any alcohol in my bag. I was upset for a few weeks, but it passed.

    And what was the worst thing I had ever done to someone? It was a terrible thing. It was devastating for them. It wasn’t against the law.

    Clive’s point was that the criminal justice system is supposed to repair harm, but most prisoners — young, black — have been incarcerated for acts far less emotionally damaging than the injuries we noncriminals perpetrate upon one another all the time — bad husbands, bad wives, ruthless bosses, bullies, bankers.
    (It has been claimed that this phase of internet social justice is on its way out - that the tactic is now to "call in"- that is, to correct an offender, but also to appeal to the offender's humanity, to try to bridge the gap. We can hope this will gain traction (3 years and counting...). In the meantime a roaring subculture has been founded upon the glorification of bad behaviour and utterly unpersuasive flames.)

    Ronson's possible solutions to finding yourself shamed: you can 1) refuse to feel bad (or at least refuse to show them you're bleeding), own the thing they're trying to shame you for, like Max Mosley. This only works sometimes. 2) You can hide from the internet, try to SEO the affair down to Google page 3, where no-one goes, like someone it would be counterproductive to name. 3) You can start over, asking for forgiveness like Jonah Lehrer. (There is none; the internet is not interested in you improving your behaviour.)


    [Theory #3, Values #1]

  • The Best Software Writing I (2003) ed. Joel Spolsky.

    Odd beast: a time capsule where half the items are of purely historical interest, and half are general and extremely wise arguments that are still not acted upon today. He had planned them to be annual collections, but they didn't happen, so this looks to represent more than one year's best. Recent enough to tell us something about the internet, though with lots of anachronism. But it's more at the lexical level - "weblog", "Sociable media" - than the semantic.

    Found (the eminent media researcher) danah boyd excessive and insulting: calling developers autistic, and people with several online accounts as multiple-personality disordered ("a person is one person. So all their activites have to be one person!") . Disappointing, typical social theory. She aggressively pushes a risky single-sign-in for all sites based on these polemics and nothing else.

    Contains helpful principles which will not age:, e.g. "if you can't understand the spec for a new technology, don't worry: nobody else will understand it either, and the technology won't be that important".


  • Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar.

    Engrossing, inspiring, deep. Full review here.

    (There wasn't an index in my Penguin copy; perhaps a sign of the ebook's dominance, since an index was always but a shadow of full-text search - or perhaps just another mild technical challenge on our way to having no boring tasks to do.)

    [Data #2, Values #2]

  • Doing Data Science (2014) by Cathy O'Neil and Kathryn Schutt.

    The first third is: Talking About Data Science. But that's good; two careful, socially conscious techies talking is nice, and you would never get the dozens of handy heuristics in this from a usual STEM textbook. Crunchier than it looks - half the value is in the dull-looking, unannotated code samples at the end of each chapter, and isn't spelled out. Pedagogy!

    It is galling, then, that the data for chapters 6 and 8 has already link-rotted away. And half of the cool startups who came to talk to the class are dead and forgotten.

    Highly recommended for outsiders and newsiders.

    [Thinking #1, Theory 5 #2]

  • Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (2016) by Various.

    Mostly bad. I adore Harry Giles though; his big one here, 'Brave', is a roaring, bouncing Orlando Furioso schtick with more point and more verbal invention than the rest summed up, paist-apocalptic RPGs and all. The eventual winner, Tiphanie Yanique, is particularly glib: she wins for a series glorifying gratuitous insensitivity.

    3/5 but see down the bottom of this post for one 4*/5 bit.
    [Data #1, Values #3]

  • The Codeless Code (2010) by "Qiless Qi".
    Violent, twee parables about software development. Generally overwrought, and you can get them in a minute or two each time, unlike the bizarre original koans, which demand convoluted confabulation.

    But 'Codeless Code' is an instance of an important genre: the romanticisation of the highly abstract and novel. We need such things; otherwise those of us without internal wellsprings of meaning will find it boring, and will thus never excel; otherwise a culture will never grow, and nothing human lasts without growing a culture. There is enough art, except regarding new matters, new concepts, new possibilities, where there is nowhere near enough.

    "Ah!", you say, "But Yudkowsky did just this, and got roundly mocked and called a cult leader and divers other bad things." Yes: that is the main tax we pay to be on the internet. I think of Yudkowsky as George Eliot thinks of Carlyle (though she hated him btw):
    ...the highest aim in education is analogous to the highest aim in mathematics, namely, to obtain not results but powers, not particular solutions, but the means by which endless solutions may be wrought. He is the most effective educator who aims less at perfecting specific acquirements than at producing that mental condition which renders acquirements easy, and leads to their useful application...

    On the same ground it may be said that the most effective writer is... he who rouses in others the activities that must issue in discovery, who awakes men from their indifference to the right and the wrong, who nerves their energies to seek for the truth and live up to it at whatever cost... he clears away the film from your eyes that you may search for data to some purpose. He does not, perhaps, convince you, but he strikes you, undeceives you, animates you. You are not directly fed by his books, but you are braced as by a walk up to an alpine summit, and yet subdued to calm and reverence as by the sublime things to be seen from that summit. Such a writer is Thomas Carlyle.

    It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence: if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived... The extent of his influence may be best seen in the fact that ideas which were startling novelties when he first wrote them are now become common-places. And we think few men will be found to say that this influence on the whole has not been for good...
    (Who didn't start the fire...)


    [Free here]
    [Thinking #3, Theory #2]

  • The Shepherd's Crown (2015) by Terry Pratchett.

    Don't know if the flatness of this comes from its being Young Adult, or from the smoothened, modern nature of his late Discworld, or from the cortical atrophy. Little of his obliquity and spark to show; it feels like someone else's writing, and no doubt it substantially was. Trades on past power, and what power it was: his witches are pre-modern doctor, social worker, priest, undertaker, and night watch. Came to say goodbye, and I got that after 5 short chapters.


    [Values #3]

(c) Errata Corrige #4 (2013) by Ekaterina Panikanova

In that sense, getting shot in the face with a rubber bullet and tear-gassed is a form of validation, a way for the state to say, “We acknowledge your objections and consider them important enough for us to come out here and shoot you in the face over them.”

  • Learning Spark (2011) by Karau et al.

    Tool books are difficult to stomach: their contents are so much more ephemeral than other technical books. It often feels like it's not worth it: in 10 years, will it matter? etc. (This is an incredibly high bar to pose, but that's how high my opinion is of the technical pursuits.) O'Reilly soften this blow, occasionally, by enlisting really brilliant authors who bring in the eternal and the broad while pootering around their narrow furrow. (I am incredibly fond of Alan Gates for this, for instance.)

    Spark is the biggest deal by far in my corner of the world and will probably affect your life in minor ways you will never pin down (see O'Neil below).


    [Theory #1, Thinking #1]

  • Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (2012) by Philip Ball.

    A history of the early modern origins of science: the long trek via Natural Magic, Alchemy, Neoplatonism, herbalism. The context of discovery is messy. Ball doesn't but in general people make way too much of this fact.

    The received view of scientific history is one-dimensional: you have the superstitious qualitative cretins at one end and the atheistic mathematised moderns at the other. Really it needs at least 5 axes before you get even a basic understanding of the great, great revolution that began to happen around the C16th.

    I graphed the intellectual space in the full review.


    [Data #1, 2, 3]

  • Signifying Rappers (1989) by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello.

    The first book on hip-hop? Certainly the first High Academic one. Though, not really a book, as they frequently acknowledge: it's a "sampler". And not expert, as they constantly acknowledge: more than half of it is them pseudo-nervously hedging about being two elite white guys peering into what was then a fairly closed circle. A solid effort too - it knows and guesses and connects more than most critics today, despite the scene being far more ethnically closed, and far less obviously of artistic wealth; despite their often comically mishearing the lyrics; and despite not being able to find anything out about the people behind the music, because no-one returned their calls (until they pretended to be journalists).

    Anyway this has 80pp of recognisably enervated DFW popping off the top of this allocortex, decent fuel for the fire of an admirer, or at any rate the only coal on offer (he was embarrassed by this book, but it is too stylish and enthusiastic to be embarrassing to us):
    Ironies abound, of course, as ironies must when cash and art do lunch. Tearing down the prop-thin symbolic walls, Run-DMC aim to celebrate desegregation, but miss the fact that Aerosmith, those whitest of white rockers, are merely big-budget Led Zeppelin ripoffs, and that Led Zep came straight outta the jet-black Rhythm & Blues of Chicago’s Chess Records. Dancing with Steve Tyler, Run-DMC forgets that Muddy Waters’ sideman Willie Dixon had to sue Led Zeppelin to get proper credit for their use of his blues. “Walk This Way” is an unwanted reunion of 80s black street music with part of its rich heritage, as that heritage has been mined and mongrelized by Show Biz. If this is desegregation, then shopping malls hold treasure...

    It’s a new and carnivorous kind of mimesis that makes weary old ‘self-reference’ actually kind of interesting, because it enlarges Self from the standard rock-subjective–a bundle of hormone-drenched emotions attached to a larynx and pelvis–to a 'big ole head,’ a kind of visual street-corner, a monadic Everybrother, an angry, jaded eye on a centerless pop-culture country full of marginalized subnations that are themselves postmodern, looped, self-referential, self-obsessed, voyeuristic, passive, slack-jawed, debased, and sources of such prodigious signal-and-data bombardment that they seem to move faster than the angry eye itself can see…
    I had been putting off reading this because of the title: I didn't know about Schooly D's track, so I read the verb in a gross academic voice ("in which we give rappers true signification") rather than the adjectival sense they actually meant ("rappers who signify").

    Costello's bits are ok, DJ "MC" to MC "DFW". Wallace is harder than Costello - noting that MCs really are just yuppies, that Chuck D's claims to not be glorifying violence are absurd, that part of the fascination of hard rap is the snuff-spiral of trying to be nastier and nastier than previous hard rappers, which is just the commercial impulse of Alice Cooper minus musicianship. But this is also a winning early bet: that rap is poetry, that it was and would be "the decade's most important and influential pop movement":
    Our opinion, then, from a distance: not only is serious rap poetry, but, in terms of the size of its audience, its potency in the Great U.S. Market, its power to spur and to authorize the artistic endeavor of a discouraged and malschooled young urban culture we’ve been encouraged sadly to write off, it’s quite possibly the most important stuff happening in American poetry today. ‘Real’ (viz. academic) U.S. poetry, a world no less insular than rap, no less strange or stringent about vocal, manner, and the contexts it works off, has today become so inbred (against its professed wishes) inaccessible that it just doesn’t get to share its creative products with more than a couple thousand fanatical, sandal-shod readers..
    Your enjoyment will depend on you giving a crap about the sheer horror of rap's initial context and being able to tolerate intentionally torturous pomo prose and juxtapositions (e.g. I Dream of Jeannie vs race riots). I loved it and twice missed my stop on the tube reading it.


    [Data #1, Theory #1, Values #1, Thinking #2]

(c) Errata Corrige #11 (2013) by Ekaterina Panikanova

  • House of God (1971) by Samuel Shem.

    Updikean satire, more delightful than funny. Its surrealism, puns (Mrs Risenshein, an LOL in NAD [litle old lady in no obvious distress]), sexual glibness earn it a right to sentimentality in the face of human filth and pain:
    We fought. She probably knew we were fighting about Dr. Sanders’s long dying and about the illusion in my father’s letters and about my plethora of absent role models and the blossoming idea that the gomers were not our patients but our adversaries, and most of all we were fighting over the guilt that I felt for having Molly in a dark corner of the ward standing up, this Molly, who, like me, wouldn’t stop and think and feel either, because if she ruminated on what she felt about enemas and emesis basins, she’d lose faith even in her centipede and want to kill herself too. Our fight was not the violent, howling, barking fight that keeps alive vestiges of love, but that tired, distant, silent fight where the fighters are afraid to punch for fear the punch will kill. So this is it, I thought dully, four months into the internship and I’ve become an animal, a mossbrained moose who did not and could not and would not think and talk, and it’s come like an exhausted cancerous animal to my always love, my buddy Berry, and me–yes it’s come to us: Relationship On Rocks...
    Shem's dialogue is pleasurable - the Flann O'Joyce variety of brainy silliness. His two eloquent Irish cops are the best people in the book:
    "Top o' the morning to you, brave Sergeant Finton Gilheeney."
    "Is it the Commissioner?"
    "None other. The young doctor says that with the aid of an operation, with the usefulness of the scalpel being demonstrated, you will survive."
    "-Dr Basch, I believe that I now have no need of the last rites. If so, could the priest depart? He scares me in the memory of how close to heaven or that hot other place I came."
    "-And is there a message for the little woman, the wife?" the Commissioner asked as the priest left...

    "Ah well, all the best boyo, and I'm on my way to your wife and will soothe her with my boyish good looks and TV-cop mien. Good-bye, and for the young scholar here who saved your fine red life, SHALOM and God bless."

    Savage, all of it, savage.
    Like any psychologically ambitious work of the mid-C20th, it has a lot of Freud in it, much of it going unchallenged. The book is also about the distress and pain of an extremely lucky and insulated and remunerated man surrounded by women who do massive amounts for him, but you mostly forget this, it is that good.

    I imagine there are still pockets of people out there who still believe in the 1950s George Clooney heroism and omnicompetence of doctors. So Shem, hot-shot prof at BMS, and his book have work to do.


    [Theory #2, Values #2]

  • Seveneves (2014) by Neal Stephenson.

    Amazing hard worldbuilding from a lunatic seed: 'what would happen if the moon just blew up?' You will stomach pages of physical exposition before scenes can occur, but it isn't superfluous. First two-thirds are psychologically convincing: you will ball your fists at the politics. (By which I mean treachery and irrationality.)

    He does railroad a couple of plot points - e.g. it is taken for granted that a psychopathic war criminal has every right to an equal share of the genetic future. And the last third's extrapolation of 5000 years of cultural creep is less formally ambitious than e.g. Cloud Atlas.

    First two-thirds 4*/5, last third 3/5.
    [Theory #1, Theory #2, Theory #4, Values #2]

  • Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) by Cathy O'Neil.

    Original, important, expert, impassioned in the right places. I have some gripes of course; full review here.


    [Data #2, Theory #1, Theory #3, Values #1]

  • Born to Run (2016) by Bruce Springsteen.

    Fans only. Though you probably will be one, if you've given him the time: he is unusual among rock auteurs, populist and wholesome to the point of naivete:
    I was... a circumstantial bohemian - I didn't do any drugs or drink... I was barely holding on to myself as it was. I couldn't imagine introducing unknown agents into my system. I needed control and those ever-elusive boundaries... Music was going to get me as high as I needed to go... the counterculture stood by definition in opposition to the conservative blue-collar experience I'd had.
    Prose is clumsy enough to be actually his work, and is eloquent by rockstar standards:
    When it rains, the moisture in the humid air blankets our town with the smell of damp coffee grounds wafting in from the NescafĂ© factory at the town’s eastern edge. I don’t like coffee but I like that smell. It’s comforting; it unites the town in a common sensory experience; it’s good industry, like the roaring rug mill that fills our ears, brings work and signals our town’s vitality. There is a place here—you can hear it, smell it—where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town...
    He's had thirty years of psychotherapy, the poor sod. He is intellectual enough to take his feelings and their theories seriously - but not intellectual enough to be sceptical about their interminable and unscientific faffing.


    [Values #3]

  • Keeping On Keeping On (2016) by Alan Bennett.

    Diaries in the lee of becoming actually famous. I love him dearly and bolted all 700pp in a couple of days. General sense of him reaping decades of quiet acclaim: he bumps into well-wishers and heavy-hitters (Stoppard, ) every week or so.

    One of the reasons I love him is that I had a very similar adolescence to his. He remains reserved, kind though grumpy:
    Being in love unhappily singled you out, I thought, it drafted you into an aristocracy. It was more than just a badge of being gay but rather an ordeal you were called upon to undergo if only to transcend it and reach a sublimity denied to other mortals.

    In the evening to the New York Public Library where I am to be made a Library Lion... There are half a dozen of us being lionised and we are lined up and photographed and made much of before going upstairs to a magnificent supper, getting home thoroughly knackered around 11. How people lead a social life is beyond me.

    I clung far too long to the notion that shyness was a virtue and not, as I came too late to see, a bore.
    He still feels outside of things, for all his reminiscences of dinner with Harold Wilson or Liz Taylor perching on his knee. On winning a Tony for Best Play aged 72:
    I am thrust blinking on to a stage facing a battery of lights while questions come out of the darkness, the best of which is: ‘Do you think this award will kick-start your career?'
    Talks so much about 50s Yorkshire. (People in general seem to think about their childhoods more than I do. (or just writers?)) I suppose he is taken to be a twee writer for this nostalgia, along with his cuddly speaking voice. But he simply isn't twee - he is the author of several of the finest nihilist soliloquoys in English literature. You may know the ignorance of people by their use of this stereotype.

    He is touchingly agitated by British politics, in the exact way I used to be. His protests are unprogrammatic, based simply on the meanness or indignity or cowardice of the policy at hand, whether it's a Labour or Tory hand;
    I wanted a Labour government so that I could stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well-intentioned. Now we have another decade of the self-interested and the self-seeking, ready to sell off what’s left of our liberal institutions and loot the rest to their own advantage. It’s not a government of the nation but a government of half the nation, a true legacy of Mrs Thatcher...

    I’ve always thought that this was a pretty fair description of that blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism which does duty for my political views. I am an old modernian... [Over the past 30 years] one has only had to stand still to become a radical.
    With the fading of the old loud left, and the abject failure of the sneering theoretical sort, unpretentious justice of this sort might motivate people, even/especially opportunist Brexiters. So to the defence of public libraries, the unprecedented conviction of policemen who murder, the provision of good to all.


    [Data #1, Values #3, Thinking #3]

  • On the Move (2015) by Oliver Sacks.

    Rushed: just a string of events and bad prose extracts from his adolescence. Also two long chapters exaggerating the achievements of two scientific titans vs consciousness studies (Crick and Edelman). Hadn't known his love life was so fraught - he looks like such a bull (and indeed Bennett remembers Sacks at Oxford as a brash alpha). Weightlifting chat is endearing in an intellectual. Read his real books.


    [Values #3, Theory #1]

Acause incomer will ayeways be a clarty wird
acause this tongue A gabber wi will nivver be the real Mackay, A sing
Acause fer aw that we’re aw Jock Tamson’s etcetera, are we tho? Eh? Are we.
Acause o muntains, castles, tenements n backlans,
acause o whisky exports, acause o airports,
acause o islans, A sing.
acause of pubs whit arena daein sae weel oot o the smokin ban, A sing.
a cause hit's grand tae sit wi a lexicon n a deeskit mynd, A sing.
acause o the pish in the stair, A sing.
acause o ye,

A sing o a Scotland whit wadna ken working class authenticity gin hit cam reelin aff an ile rig douned six pints n glasst hit in the cunt.
whit hit wadna
by the way.
A sing o a google Scotland
o laptop Scotland
o a Scotland saw dowf on bit-torrentit HBO
drama series n DLC packs fer paistapocalyptic RPGs that hit wadna ken
hits gowk fae its gadjie,
fae whas lips n fingers amazebawz cams
mair freely as bangin.
A sing o a Scotland bidin in real dreid o wan day findin oot
juist hou parochial aw hits cultural references mey be,
n cin only cope wi the intertextuality o the Scots
Renaissance wi whappin annotatit editions,
n weens hits the same wi awbdy else.
I sing o a Scotland whit’ll chant hits hairt oot dounstairs o the Royal Oak, whit’ll pouk hits timmer clarsach hairtstrangs, whit like glamour will sing hits hairt intae existence, whit haps sang aroon hits bluidy nieve hairt,
whit sings.
- Harry Giles